The spam filter gauntlet

Negotiating it is an urgently needed skill for mechanical contractors who use e-mail for marketing and communications. BY JOE DYSART SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR For many mechanical contractors, getting legitimate e-mail past spam filters has become something of a blood sport. No matter how many hoops you jump through, no matter how deft your sleight of hand, you find that too many of your e-mails are still

Negotiating it is an urgently needed skill for mechanical contractors who use e-mail for marketing and communications.

BY JOE DYSART
SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR

For many mechanical contractors, getting legitimate e-mail past spam filters has become something of a blood sport. No matter how many hoops you jump through, no matter how deft your sleight of hand, you find that too many of your e-mails are still being dragged off to the "dungeon of the doomed" for no apparent good reason.

Sadly, we now live in a world where " I found your e-mail in my spam folder," is almost as common a salutation as "How are you doing?" And by most accounts, it appears we're in for more of the same for quite some time.

Consider: A study recently released by Ferris Research, a market research firm specializing in e-messaging, found that nearly 20% of all e-mails never end up where they're supposed to go. Users of all the major Internet service providers regularly complain that draconian spam filters scoop up at least some of their e-mails. And a spate of especially egregious e-mail censorings recently prompted the Wall Street Journal to bemoan the trend with its article, "Spam Filters Gone Wild."

Indeed, the problem with overly prohibitive spam filters has grown so severe, AOL has made good on its promise earlier this year to begin offering a spam-filter-busting"certified e-mail" service. Under the plan — which kicked off in early May — e-mail from pre-approved senders completely bypasses AOL's spam filters and arrives in recipients' e-mail boxes completely unscathed. The service also ensures that all images, links and other design features of certified e-mail arrive intact — something the Internet service providers cannot promise for e-mail sent the old fashioned way, (i.e., for free).

Plus, as long as these pre-approved senders continue to play nice, they can send as much "certified e-mail" as they want. The catch: The lucky elites have to pay AOL 1/4 cent to 1 cent per e-mail for their "certified status." As you might imagine, Yahoo! is eyeing a similar plan. And you can bet hordes of other ISPs are gawking at these pay-for-peace-of-mind offers with their dreams of a new cash cow.

Effective e-mail strategies
In a phrase, there's never been a more pressing time to knuckle down, and bulletproof your legitimate e-mails against the well-meaning Keepers of the E-mail Inbox. Toward that end, here's a roundup of some of the most effective strategies, recommended by e-mail marketing experts:

Consider a comprehensive e-mail monitoring service. Believe it or not, a cottage industry has sprung up specializing in ensuring your e-mail gets to its intended recipient, no matter what. [email protected] (www.deliverywatch.com), for example, has the ability to monitor the fate of your e-mails once those messages reach the systems of AOL, Yahoo!, MSN and other top e-mail handlers.

The service will monitor all major blacklists for you, to ensure your company is not unfairly smeared as a spammer. Plus, it will verify that that your e-mail is Sender Policy Framework compliant (spf.pobox.com), meaning that recipient systems are able to pinpoint the precise origin of your e-mail, and your e-mail server configuration is optimized for a friendly reception on the receiving end. In addition, it will run templates of your e-mails through spam filter tests, to sanitize your message of recognized "trigger" words or phrases that many spam filters automatically route to the trash bin, no matter how worthy the message.

Pre-test your e-mail for spam problems. If you'd rather not spring for a monthly monitoring service, you can still better navigate through spam filters by running a spam check. A number of free services on the Web will scour your e-mail for common "trigger" words and phrases that automatically send a message to the spam bin. These include Spam Filter Tester (www.deliverywatch.com), Free Spam Check (spamcheck.sitesell.com) and E-mail Spam Checker (www.enetplace.com/spamchecker.html).

"Mechanical contractors can benefit from 'pre-flight' spam checks that can alert them to potential trigger words in their outbound e-mail," says Mike Adams, president of Arial Software (www.arialsoftware.com), a maker of e-mail marketing software. "Due to the high prevalence of spam, popular spam filters tend to give e-mails a short leash, and even a few occurrences of trigger words can get a message flagged as spam."

Get white listed for all the major ISPs. Getting on the good side of the people who process millions of e-mails every day only makes sense. AOL offers detailed information on how to get on its white list at this address — postmaster.info.aol.com/whitelist/. Plus, if you stay in AOL's good graces, you can be promoted to the service's Enhanced White List (postmaster.info.aol.com/guidelines/enhanced.html).

For information on Yahoo!'s white-listing service, you'll need a Yahoo! e-mail account. Once you've logged on, go to "Help" and scroll down to the link, "My e-mail is being blocked by Yahoo!, what can I do?" Click the link, and you'll be presented with a form you can use to secure additional information. (MSN does not publish explicit detail on its white-listing procedures.)

You can also find white-listing compliance tips from other ISPs, under " postmaster," " sending bulk e-mail" and similar headings on their Websites.

"Another superior option for mechanical contractors is to work with a partner who specializes in such activity, and who aggregates such effort across, and on behalf of, many companies," says Richard Khan, manager/marketing and product management, for Mailworkz (www.mailworkz.com), another maker of e-mail marketing software.

Arial's Adams adds: "Since white-listing efforts are one-time affairs that impart permanent status benefits to approved mail senders, they are well justified to pursue. A little time and money up front can have a lasting impact on the effectiveness of our e-mail campaigns for years to come."

Beseech customers to add you to their e-mail address book. Recipients who add your e-mail address to their e-mail program's address book can often completely eliminate any problems with your e-mail getting through a company spam filter. That's why many marketers include an "add our e-mail to your address book," with every e-mail marketing message they send, as well as with every personal e-mail they send. While you're at it, ask recipients to refer your e-mail address to their IT person or department's white list for the same reason.

Publish detailed instructions on how to add your e-mail address to an address book. As with many things Internet, there's a trick to adding an e-mail address to an address book. You need to know the short point-and-click sequence, and many people have more important things to do. Some companies get around this problem by publishing detailed, quick-and-easy instructions on how to add an e-mail address to any major e-mail program.

Get a head start on your own "add us" page by checking out the one at Investment U (www.investmentu.com/Whitelist.html). Its page offers quick-and-easy add us instructions for all the current major e-mail programs, including Outlook, Outlook Express, AOL, MSN, Yahoo! and Gmail. Plus, the company offers instructions for earlier versions of the same programs.

Consider a direct-to-desktop broadcaster. Many companies have grown so frustrated with overly aggressive spam filters, they're bypassing e-mail altogether and reaching current and potential clients in other ways. One method gaining popularity is direct-to-desktop broadcasters, which use RSS (Really Simple Syndication) to create a direct communications link between company and a recipient's PC.

Essentially, people who treasure your e-mails and marketing messages (and isn't that everyone?) can download a tiny program from your Website, which places an icon on their task bar tray — located on the lower right side of their computer screen. Any time you send them a message, the icon flashes, or uses a similar alert, to let them know they've received a message from you. They simply click on the icon, and your message is displayed.

In reality, the tiny program they're using is actually a mini-RSS Reader, similar to dozens of other free RSS Readers that are already available on the Web. The difference is the mini-RSS Reader provided by these programs is branded with your company's name. The good news here is you won't need to understand how RSS works to use direct-to-desktop software. Once installed, all you'll need to do is cut-and-paste a message into the broadcast end of the program on your PC, click "send" and you're done.

Some direct-to-desktop packages to check out include Direct-To-Client Autoresponder System (www.direct2client.us); KlipFolio Branded (www.serence.com/site.php?action=ser_products,klipfolio_branded) and Desktop Marketer (www.directtodesktopsoftware.com).

Supplement with RSS messaging. Even after taking all these precautions, you may want to add RSS messaging to your communications mix. While admittedly an acronym only for jargon lovers, RSS is an elegantly simple way for a company to send a direct-marketing message over the Web without fear of it getting caught in any kind of spam filter.

As with many computer products, you don't need to completely understand RSS messaging to use it. It's simply a matter of telling your IT person, "I need you to set me up with RSS." They'll do the rest (one would hope). After that, just cut-and-paste your messages into an RSS broadcaster, or your RSS-enabled Website, and you're done. Your customers and trading partners get messages from you that never see the likes of a spam filter.

"It makes good sense to parallel publish newsletters and other text information via e-mail and RSS feeds, thereby allowing recipients to choose the channel of distribution they like best," Adams says.

Supplement with a blog. People who read company blogs are often extremely enthusiastic about its products — sometimes to the point of being evangelical. Why not make sure these people get the latest information on your firm with your own company blog? As with Web pages, blogs can be "RSS-enabled," meaning that anyone "subscribing" to your blog receives an alert in his RSS reader any time you post something new. For an excellent guide on getting started with blogs, check out Fredrik Wacka's free e-book, "Beginner's Guide to Corporate Blogging" (www.corporateblogging.info/basics/corporatebloggingprimer.pdf).

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He can be reached at 805/379-3673 or at [email protected]. His Website is www.joedysart.com